Israeli helmer Yoav Shamir's personal, irreverent "Defamation" is an ace slice of provocative, timely docu-making.

With: Abraham Foxman, Norman Finkelstein, Stephen M. Walt, John J. Mearsheimer. (English, Hebrew, Polish, Russian dialogue)

Is anyone who expresses anti-Zionist opinions necessarily also anti-Semitic? Is anti-Semitism itself still an endemic and dangerous global problem? Has remembering the Holocaust become an unhealthy obsession, perhaps with a hidden agenda? Will readers regard a Jewish critic as a self-hating Jew just for considering Israeli helmer Yoav Shamir’s personal, occasionally irreverent “Defamation” an ace slice of provocative, timely docu-making? No doubt the first three questions — and many more — will stir up red-hot debates wherever “Defamation” unspools, which is likely to be at numerous further fests (although some Jewish-themed ones may balk) and on upscale channels.

Shamir, whose previous docu features (“Checkpoint,” “5 Days,” and “Flipping Out”) explored various aspects of current Israeli life, lays his cards on the table from the start by saying he’s never directly experienced anti-Semitism himself. After a comical interview with his own 92-year-old grandmother (who claims Jews abroad really are lazy and make money off others so they don’t have to work), Shamir sets out to assess whether anti-Semitism still lurks underneath the surface of supposedly civilized societies, or is just a scarecrow used to drum up political support for right-wing Zionism.

Popular on Variety

Judging by the evidence offered here, both opinions look plausible. Shamir engages thinkers from across the spectrum, from Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, which collects evidence of anti-Semitism, to left-wing academic Norman Finkelstein, whose controversial book “The Holocaust Industry” argues that what the Nazis did is used today to justify Israel’s maltreatment of Palestinians.

As journalism, pic is impressively evenhanded (as were “Checkpoint” and “5 Days”), even though the filmmaker never attempts to disguise his own left-leaning sympathies. He can’t resist skewering the ADL a bit, making Foxman look somewhat sinister and Machiavellian behind his front of affability. Then again, persuasive but embittered Finkelstein, caught ranting about the “warmongers of Martha’s Vineyard,” doesn’t come across too well either.

The most comic and disturbing sequences spring from footage of Israeli high school students visiting extermination camps in Poland. Struggling to come to grips with what the Holocaust means for their generation, they eat candy while watching archive footage of emaciated Auschwitz victims (a moment worthy of “Seinfeld”). Later, some kids confess they’re scared to leave their hotel rooms because they’ve been warned by their teachers and the Secret Service agents accompanying them that the country is fit to burst with anti-Semites who mean them harm.

Use of hand-drawn graphics to identify onscreen figures amps up the comedy effectively, as does editor Morten Hojbjerg’s deadpan use of abrupt cuts, which dampens subject matter’s potential grimness. End result is at once intelligent, wry and — there’s no way around it — quintessentially Jewish, in the best sense.



Production: A Cinephil (Israel)/Knut Ogris Films (Austria)/Reveal Prods. (U.S.)/SF Film Production (Denmark) production, with the support of the Austrian Film Institute, ORF FilmTV Convention, the Danish Film Institute, Danish Radio TV, YLE-Finnish TV, Nordisk Film TV Fond, Ministry of Integration Denmark, Hartley Film Foundation, Zukunftsfonds of the Austrian Republic, Nationalfonds of the Republic of Austria, the Federal Ministry for Education, Art and Culture, the Rabinovich Foundation for Arts, the Second Authority for TV & Radio. (International sales: Cinephil, Tel Aviv.) Produced by Karoline Leth, Sandra Itkoff, Philippa Kowarsky, Knut Ogris. Directed, written by Yoav Shamir.

Crew: Camera (color), Shamir; editor, Morten Hojbjerg; music, Mischa Krausz; sound (Dolby Digital), Bruno Pisek; sound designer, Birgit Obkircher. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 5, 2009. Running time: 91 MIN.

With: With: Abraham Foxman, Norman Finkelstein, Stephen M. Walt, John J. Mearsheimer. (English, Hebrew, Polish, Russian dialogue)

More Film

  • Mickey Rourke

    Film News Roundup: Mickey Rourke's 'Adverse' Opens Fantasporto Festival

    In today’s film news roundup, a Mickey Rourke crime drama will premiere in Portugal, a film about the Purdue Pharma scandal is in the works and the documentary “After Parkland” will be shown at 100 locations on the second anniversary of the Parkland shootings. FESTIVAL OPENER The world premiere of Mickey Rourke’s crime drama “Adverse” [...]

  • Director of the Sundance Film Festival

    Outgoing Sundance Festival Director John Cooper Reflects on 30 Years of Highs and Lows

    John Cooper, the outgoing director of the Sundance Film Festival, has been on Robert Redford’s payroll for 30 years. Many in the small world of Hollywood, and the even smaller ecosystem of global film festivals, braced at the announcement last June that Cooper would step down, taking with him decades of institutional memory. Cooper spoke [...]

  • Sam Rockwell Awards Season Fashion

    Stylist Michael Fisher Discusses Sam Rockwell's Red Carpet Looks

    Stylist Michael Fisher wanted Sam Rockwell’s looks to reflect his dynamic acting: “Sam and I gravitate towards color and pattern.” Sept. 8 “It’s a celebration with Sam every time we have a fitting,” says stylist Michael Fisher of longtime client Rockwell. “He’s such a vibrant, amazing actor and personality, and he really enjoys these moments, [...]

  • Conductor and Composer Eímear Noone pictured

    Oscars to Feature Female Orchestra Conductor for the First Time

    A woman will be conducting at the Oscars for the first time on Sunday, Feb. 9, the Academy announced today. Irish-born composer-conductor Eímear Noone will conduct excerpts from the five nominated scores. She is the first female to lead the orchestra in the history of the televised awards, the Academy said. Details beyond that are [...]

  • Tina Fey attends the "Mean Girls"

    Tina Fey Announces Movie Adaptation of Broadway's 'Mean Girls' Musical

    It’s good to be mean…the “Mean Girls” musical, that is. Producers of the hit Broadway show announced today that the Tony-nominated production is being adapted for the big screen for Paramount Pictures. The musical is based on the 2004 movie of the same name. “I’m very excited to bring ‘Mean Girls’ back to the big screen,’ Tina Fey, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content